Oklahoma State Re-Establishing Itself As National Powerhouse
After winning back-to-back Women’s College World Series titles with Florida as an assistant, Kenny Gajewski decided to accept the head coach position at Oklahoma State in June 2015, and has quickly brought the Cowgirls back into the national spotlight.
Expectations weren’t going to be lowered, and Gajewski knew Oklahoma State could become a national softball powerhouse once again.
“We just need time,” Gajewski said. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Since Gajewski's hiring, the Cowgirls have made the postseason every season and have steadily improved from a 32-26 (Big 12 6-11) record in 2016 to 45-17 (13-5) in 2019 with a WCWS appearance, to the present day with the Cowgirls at 42-9 (15-3) and the No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“The history of this program is truly unbelievable in the 80s and 90s,” said Michele Smith, an Olympian and former Cowgirl great. “I am just glad that there is a coach in there that is really building the program.”
Gajewski wants to bring Oklahoma State back to the heights it reached when Sandy Fischer was the head coach. And when he was hired, Gajewski knew he had to act promptly.
Gajewksi was on the recruiting trail with Florida in Chattanooga, Tenn., when Oklahoma State Athletic Director Mike Holder offered him the position as he sat outside the complex on a picnic bench.
After that, he changed hotels and went to offer now Cowgirl graduate transfer Alysen Febrey a scholarship in Peachtree, Ga. Gajewski, then, had a long night ahead.
“I just thought, I have to get on the phone with these kids immediately,” Gajewski said. “... I just went back to the hotel and went down the (OSU) roster and started making phone calls one-by-one.”
Gajewski didn’t prioritize the order of his phone calls, but probably the most important call he made was to then-freshman Vanessa Shippy—who finished her Cowgirl career as a three-time All-American and a two-time All-Big 12 Player of the Year—to convince her to stay in Stillwater, Okla.
“After my freshman season when I was headed home, I remember thinking, ‘This is going to be my last time in Stillwater,’” Shippy said. “I held on, and Kenny called me pretty quickly and the rest is history. He convinced me that we were going to win and be competitive, and that is all I wanted. I wanted a college experience where I felt that I was going to make a difference somewhere.
“... It is crazy to have this conversation now because of how much Stillwater means to me, and how much it has changed my life, but I almost left. I really almost did.”
Currently a volunteer assistant coach with the program, Shippy added that it is night and day from the program she walked into as a freshman.
“It is awesome to see the turnaround, and just how quickly it has happened,” Shippy said.
Next for Gajewski was to put history back on the walls and to get all the alumnae involved, reconnecting both aspects at Cowgirl Stadium in Stillwater.
“That is important because if you look at any great program—UCLA, Arizona, Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma or any of those legacy-type programs—the alumnae stay connected,” Smith said. “Kenny Gajewski gets that, and he is really building that.”
It is all a process for Gajewski, and next was to continue to build a culture and use his personality, realism and loyalty to bring players to Stillwater where they can thrive.
“There is nobody that I would rather play for,” senior outfielder Chelsea Alexander said. “He is an amazing man, a great coach, a great friend and a great asset and resource to have.
Gajewski recruits with the best, but Oklahoma State has jumped to the next level with his success in the transfer market, finding gems from Kacy Freeze, Rylee Bayless and Samantha Show—who led the Cowgirls to the WCWS in 2019—to Alysen Febrey, Carrie Eberle and Hayley Busby, among others.
“I will be honest, I don’t even know how to get onto the transfer portal,” Gajewski said. “I just verify that players are on there with our compliance office. What we have created here is that transfers will reach out to us when they get onto the portal, a ton of them. Then, we have to figure out, ‘Do they fit? Is it the right person? Is it a need?’
“... I always preach that this isn’t a free agency market. We aren’t a one-year deal. This is a forever thing. I want you to love OSU. I want you to come back to OSU. I want your kids, and their kids, and your husbands or wives to come back here. We don’t try to overpromise, but we try to overdeliver.”
With that, Gajewski has continued to build something special in Stillwater.
“It is something that I just wanted to be a part of,” Febrey said. “Kenny has had a vision for this program, and a lot of it has already come true.”
Gajewski noted that he is blessed and cursed to have Patty Gasso and Oklahoma down the road, saying Oklahoma State doesn’t have to look far to find the standard within NCAA Softball.
The Cowgirls hadn’t won against the Sooners since April 27, 2011, carrying a 24-game losing streak against their rival into May 7 at Cowgirl Stadium. In a massive moment for the program, the Cowgirls came back from a 4-1 deficit to win, 6-4, against OU.
“I had goosebumps just keeping up with it on Twitter,” Show said.
With a passion for the rivalry and all the hard work she's put in, Chelsea Alexander—a lifelong OSU fan—couldn’t hold back her tears of excitement.
“We just needed something to get over that hump,” Alexander said. “It was never the goal (to only beat OU once), but it is a step in the right direction.”
Gajewski always thinks about the future and how he will change the narrative and continue to grow Oklahoma State softball back into a perennial national powerhouse, and that includes an overdue and deserved new Cowgirl Stadium.
“We are going to get a beautiful place,” Gajewksi said. “I have support all the way up in administration to the President of the University. All it takes is for people to dream big and think big. I don’t have a timeframe on that, but the snowball is running downhill fast.”
In the meantime, Gajewski plans to return to the WCWS this season.
“I think it is Oklahoma City or bust, to be honest,” Gajewski said.